ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia – Thousands of mourners gathered near a public square in Ethiopia's capital on Sunday to pay their final respects to Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who was praised for lifting many out of poverty but vilified by some for restricting freedoms.
Meles, who ruled for 21 years, died Aug. 20 of an undisclosed illness in a Belgian hospital. He was 57. During his rule Ethiopia was a strong U.S. ally on counter-terrorism issues, particularly in Somalia, and some saw him as Africa's intellectual leader in efforts to fight poverty.
Ethiopian officials said the state funeral in Addis Ababa was attended by hundreds of dignitaries from around the world, including several African leaders. Regional leaders praised Meles' record, saying he provided leadership to the whole of Africa. President Jacob Zuma of South Africa said Ethiopia had lost "a patriot and a visionary."
"His was a life of immense courage, vision and enterprise which he devoted to the advancement of his fellow citizens in this country and across Africa," said Rwandan President Paul Kagame.
The U.S. delegation was led by Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., who described Meles as "unpretentious and direct."
For most Ethiopians, the funeral was the culmination of two weeks of national mourning. Posters, pictures and quotes from the late prime minister have been ubiquitous in nearly every street of the capital since the government announced Meles' death. Many wailed when Meles' casket arrived at Meskel Square, scene of the funeral ceremony, on a horse-drawn carriage. After the funeral service a procession carried the casket for burial at the Holy Trinity Cathedral, where some of the country's most illustrious people are interred.
Born on May 8, 1955, Meles became president in 1991 after helping to oust a Communist military junta that had been responsible for hundreds of thousands of Ethiopian deaths.
Meles became prime minister in 1995, a position that is both the head of the federal government and armed forces. The U.S. saw Meles as a strong security partner and gave hundreds of millions of dollars in aid over the years. U.S. military drones that patrol East Africa — especially over Somalia — are stationed in Ethiopia. In the mid-2000s, the country saw strong economic growth, which won Meles international praise. The International Monetary Fund in 2008 said Ethiopia's economy had grown faster than any non-oil exporting country in sub-Saharan Africa.
But Ethiopia under Meles was criticized by human rights groups for the government's strict control, especially of independent political groups and the press. A notable incident happened in November 2005, when nearly 200 people were killed by security forces in Addis Ababa after public protests stemming from disputed election results. Meles' ruling coalition has since then tightened its grip on power, leaving the opposition with only one of the 547 seats in parliament.
Deputy Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn is currently acting as prime minister. It remains unclear when he will be sworn in, but Ethiopian officials say no elections are planned.
Hailemariam is a relatively new figure on Ethiopia's political scene. It is not clear if the old guard will allow him to keep the prime minister's post in the long run.
"Our great leader Meles Zenawi has been the chief architect of our country's renaissance, which has been assured by double-digit growth over the last eight years," Hailemariam said at Meles' funeral.
He said that the government's policies would remain the same.